'Swallow': The story behind the body horror movie terrifying audiences

Ethan AlterSenior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies UK

While stuck inside during the already-unnerving coronavirus pandemic, quarantined movie fans are finding another source of tension courtesy of the buzzy psychological thriller, Swallow.

Since its VOD premiere writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s narrative feature debut has been terrifying Twitter with its all-too-authentic depiction of pica, an eating disorder that compels individuals to consume non-nutritional objects — think keys, rings and dirt.

The film focuses on a young woman named Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett), who leads a seemingly privileged life as the bride of a second-generation Wall Street tycoon (Austin Stowell). But her new family regards her with barely-veiled contempt, exacerbating personal demons stemming from a dark secret in her past.

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During the long, lonely days she spends in their picturesque suburban house perched above the Hudson River, Hunter finds herself so starved of connection that she begins to ingest pieces of her daily life. Starting with small objects — a marble here and a thumbtack there — she gradually works her way up to consuming more dangerous items, including a battery and a mini-screwdriver. 

Hunter (Haley Bennett) is compelled to eat ordinary objects in the psychological thriller, <em>Swallow</em>. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films.)
Hunter (Haley Bennett) is compelled to eat ordinary objects in the psychological thriller, Swallow. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films.)

With its potent mixture of body horror and psychological tension, Swallow is feeding viewers’ voracious appetite for fresh streaming content, and they’ve been sharing those feelings on social media. 

That intense reaction has turned the movie — which originally premiered at the 2019 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was acquired by IFC Films — into a bonafide streaming success story at a time when mandated cinema closures have postponed blockbuster releases and left smaller films struggling for audience attention.

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And it’s not just ordinary moviegoers falling under Swallow’s spell. Ron Howard and his daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, both gave Mirabella-Davis’s film a virtual thumbs up, and Kevin Smith, raved about it on a recent episode of his popular Fatman on Batman podcast, bringing the movie to the attention of his substantial fanbase. “I found it on iTunes,” the Clerks director said enthusiastically. “It captured my imagination — insanely well done.” 

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Mirabella-Davis is still wrapping his mind around the fact that his movie picked up Smith’s endorsement. “I remember seeing Clerks back in the day,” the New York-based director says. “He’s such an inspiring figure, and such an icon of independent film culture. I was really touched that he mentioned the movie.”

He’s equally thrilled that civilian moviegoers are discussing the film amongst themselves online. “There are a lot of people making fan art, designing posters and recommending it to each other. The passion and enthusiasm among those who have discovered the movie through VOD has been really magical to see.”

And in the interest of preserving that sense of discovery for new viewers, Mirabella-Davis is careful not to reveal too much about Swallow’s most throat-tightening moments, which caused at least one person at Tribeca to faint during a screening.

“A magician never reveals their secrets, and I have sworn that I’m not going to go into the details of how we created those illusions — and they are illusions,” he says of how he and Bennett depicted Hunter’s eating habits. “I want people to experience it without thinking, ‘Oh, that’s where that trick happened.’”

Hunter has a lonely dinner with her husband (Austin Stowell) and in-laws (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) in <em>Swallow</em>. (Photo courtesy IFC Films)
Hunter has a lonely dinner with her husband (Austin Stowell) and in-laws (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) in Swallow. (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

Mirabella-Davis credits his leading lady, along with his editor, Joe Murphy, with deftly executing each illusion. “With each [swallowing] sequence, Haley and I spent a lot of time talking about the different beats, and we broke each scene down into very distinct transitions and counterpoints. One of the things that’s incredible about her is that there are a lot of moments where the narrative of Hunter’s psychological journey needs to be experience without words: She can show you all the different intricacies in her eyes and the micro-calibrations of her face.” 

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Behind the camera, Mirabella-Davis focused on the intricacies of giving each object its own taste. “I wanted each of them to be like an emotional memory with its own psychological flavour,” he explains. “The marble seemed like the perfect thing to start with, because there’s something nostalgic about it. As Hunter holds it up to the light, you can hear the distant sounds of a beach scene — people laughing, gulls calling overhead. It’s almost like a memory from her childhood, a moment of happiness lost.” Those psychological flavours escalate as Hunter falls further into the grip of pica.

Actress Haley Bennett attends a special screening of "Swallow" at NeueHouse Madison Square on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Actress Haley Bennett attends a special screening of "Swallow" at NeueHouse Madison Square on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The director describes the thumbtack, for example, as a “dangerous liaison,” that functions as an appetiser of sorts for the harmful objects she starts to consume, culminating in that small, but sharp screwdriver that she swallows in a moment of horror for the audience, and a moment of desperation for her. “That’s a moment where everything builds to her gazing into the void,” Mirabella-Davis confirms. 

Swallowing these objects are only part of Hunter’s ritual; after they pass through her digestive systems, she rescues them from being flushed away and displays them as trophies on her bedroom vanity. That manner of retrieval made a big impression on Smith: “I was like ‘This movie’s f***ed up, man,’” he said on his podcast. “I never saw that before.” At the same time, Mirabella-Davis cautions that Hunter’s trophy collecting isn’t necessarily a routine symptom of pica. “The manifestations differ for each patient,” he says, adding that he enlisted clinical psychologist and pica expert, Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, as a consultant on the script.

Hunter reaches new depths of despair in <em>Swallow</em>. (Photo courtesy IFC Films)
Hunter reaches new depths of despair in Swallow. (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

“She gave a thumbs-up to the accuracy of [the collecting], but it’s something that’s specific to this character as an interesting metaphor,” he says. “The trophies are important to her because it’s a personal accomplishment. This is a film about someone who is reclaiming control over their body, and also rebelling against a very contained and controlled world that has these expectations of how she should behave. There’s this incredible demand on her to put on a role of what a wife should be. Her moments of defiance that are her ways of reclaiming herself.” When viewed through that lens, Mirabella-Davis feels that the film is less about body horror than it is about body autonomy. “Even though pica is a dangerous compulsion, it also serves as a kind of catalyst for Hunter to rebel against the system.”

That theme of female rebellion and reclamation makes Swallow an effective companion piece to Leigh Whannell’s recent horror hit, The Invisible Man, which Universal quickly released on VOD in the wake of cinema closures due to the coronavirus. In fact, in the days since our conversation with Mirabella-Davis, he and Whannell have traded compliments about their respective movies over Twitter.

Even as the social media accolades keep rolling in, the reviews that matter the most to the director have come from his family. That’s because Swallow was based, in part, on the life of his late grandmother, an unhappy 1950s homemaker who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. “She was an obsessive hand-washer, who would go through four bars of soap a day, and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. At the behest of the doctors, my grandfather put her into a mental institution, where she was given electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy and a non-consensual lobotomy, where she lost her sense of taste and smell.”

While institutionalised, her children — including Mirabella-Davis’s mother, who was only three years old at the time — were placed in foster care. “My mother loves the film, and has been very moved by people’s responses to it,” he reveals. “I’m very grateful to both my mom and dad for showing me a lot of movies as a kid. One of the things that's sad about the current situation is that I don't get to watch movies with them because we're all isolated! I’m worried about them, but I will always cherish our times of watching films together.”

Swallow is currently available to rent or buy on digital streaming services.

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